Thanks for the Macs

The passing of Steve Jobs last week, like others, caused me to reflect on his impact on my life via Apple.

I was a child of the 70s and teen of the 80s. I wanted to fly aircraft and was into science (fiction and fact) and electronic music.

Science fiction was full of computers : from Star Wars, Space 1999, BattleStar Galactica, Buck Rogers and Blake’s 7 etc

As for science fact, the first significant event I remember well – being allowed out of lessons to watch the first Space Shuttle launch on tv. Around that time the school had 3 computers. Two Commodore PETs and a ZX81. I got into trouble for not doing my homework to write a program to tie a tie. It was only ever to be a series of print statements that had to read out for the teacher to type into the PET. I had a go at reading from my blank note-book, but he sussed me. Despite that fail, my interest in computing was sparked and my savings went into getting a ZX81 and a couple of years later a ZX Spectrum and input of many listings from the likes of Sinclair User and Your Computer.

I gradually became aware of Apple via occasional appearances of the Apple II on the likes of the BBC Computer Programme / Micro Live. It had an immediate reputation of being a cutting edge machine but massively expensive. Similarly the original Macintosh was far beyond anything I could afford, so my next machine was to be a Sinclair QL. Although the QL was still not a GUI machine, Mac was already an influence causing me to create my A-Level computer science project on the QL, a GUI music sequencer. Admittedly it was just a graphical menu system driven by cursor keys, but this was the start of my interest in UI programming.

In my first year at University I bought my next machine – an Atari ST 512. Finally something with a GUI. A decent machine for the budget, and useful for games and as a music sequencer. It had a WYSIWYG word processor, but output looked a bit rough by the time my Epson LX-80 had printed. It was no Mac.

My 3rd year at Uni was industrial placement. I spent my year with ICI programming VAX FORTRAN on a DEC VAX 6310 cluster running VMS. All the UI work was text menu based and occasionally command-line. I was then well prepared for a career of programming in an industrial environment. However I was saving up deciding on a new machine for my final academic year where I knew I’d need to write up my final year project. I bought a number of issues of MacUser – everything about Mac oozed quality and I longed for one.

So in 1991 I managed (strangely) to get a discount on my first Mac by trading in my Sinclair QL. I was sad to see the QL go, but very happy to welcome a Macintosh LC and StyleWriter with WordPerfect for Macintosh. A really good machine which I retain to this day. Although it hasn’t been out of it’s box for a while.

WordPerfect came with student discount and a competition. I entered and won. The prize : A new Macintosh LC! Once sold, the initial net cost of my first Mac turned out to be pretty small. Other than completely underestimating how long it would take to print out my final report at full quality on the StyleWriter this machine was a good choice. While others were messing tweaking PCs, the Mac just worked and the print quality was great.

Through MacUser I was once again a lucky competition winner. The Prize: Flight to San Francisco with tickets to attend MacWorld Expo 1993. I had only been abroad once before so this was the trip of my life to that point and the exhibition at the Moscone centre was the biggest I;d ever seen. My least expensive purchase during the trip, but the most valuable, was a copy of Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines (ATL). I haven’t read it in some time but while all the examples in the book are specific to the look and feel of Mac System 7, I recall it includes reasoning and many principles which remain useful today.

By the end of it’s useful life in about 1994/1995 the LC’s memory was increased from 2Mb to 6Mb, vRAM increased from 256K to 512K, hard disc increased from 40Mb to 500Mb, an accelerator replaced the 68020 cpu with 68030, a 17inch monitor replaced the tiny 12inch original, AppleCD 150 CD-ROM drive was added and I saw QuickTime running for the first time. Ok, the drive was single speed, discs loaded via a caddy, and the video was postage-stamp size – but it felt revolutionary. Also many hours were spent in the world of MYST – CD-ROM based game.

Back in 1993 being the owner of a Mac and having an interest and knowledge of user interface principles helped me win my first job in ‘interactive media‘. A startup company formed to develop applications teaching English as a second language. We started with an empty office, my Mac LC and PhotoShop, soon replaced by a Quadra 800 and we choose MacroMind Director with which to develop our educational games.

Since then and to date I have always had a Mac as my primary machine and usually a PC to target-test. My work programming interactive media has taken me from small town small company through to London multinational PLCs and now to working freelance. I used System 6 through System 9 and Mac OS X from 10.1 to 10.7 and loved it – every improvement every step of the way.

I am no Apple fanboy. I don’t buy everything Apple produces (no iPad no iPhone). I grumble when things don’t work. I didn’t agree with everything Steve Jobs said but Macintosh in particular has been good to me every day for the past 20 years. For that I thank Steve Jobs and the teams of people he brought together to make it happen. I hope we (Apple staff and customers) all learned enough from his example to keep up the momentum. His passing has given me a kick in the pants to go and get more stuff done.

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